Calling all ICT professionals: your country needs you

Employing over a million people who contribute 10 per cent of GDP, the UK boasts the largest information and communications technology (ICT) sector in Europe. Retaining this lead is one of the greatest challenges which lie ahead, especially with increasing competition from some of the world’s fastest growing economies like India and China.

ICT is a major source of wealth creation for the UK, and this is set to grow – rapidly. But can the UK call upon enough skilled people to back this growth? In the West Midlands alone, where the ICT sector already occupies a key position in the region’s economy, the rate of expansion within the industry is estimated to increase 12 times faster than the economy as a whole. Whilst this is great news for the sector, it places even greater demand on the UK’s finite pool of skilled ICT professionals.

Where is the next generation?

Despite increased opportunities within the sector, many graduates fail to grasp the potential of entering the ICT industry, leaving the UK and Europe with a growing skills shortage. In the experience of Dr Pat Costello, academic staff at the University of Wolverhampton and ICT Cluster Manager for Advantage West Midlands, those that enter the sector often gravitate towards Blue Chip companies, rather than explore the career opportunities within SMEs. Pat believes that:

“We need to be teaching them right from the point when they walk through the University’s door that that there is another world besides working for a big company.”

Graduates also overlook IT roles in businesses serving other markets like finance, health, law and engineering. A failure to recognise openings within firms for systems analysts, business analysts, IT trainers and IT support etc, is a common problem. Dr Pat Costello, whose professional experience spans both the higher education sector and the ICT industry is well placed to observe that: “the biggest skills gap we have is for IT graduates who can bridge the gap between IT and business”.

So why are graduates overlooking the industry? Some commentators suggest that a failure to build early enthusiasm for ICT as a subject and career is a contributing factor. A recent study led by the Royal Society warned that the UK may face skills shortages as a result of uninspiring information technology lessons in school.

Certainly, the sharp decline in candidates studying GCSE ICT, which has fallen by around one third over the last three years, and an equivalent drop in the number of A-level IT students during the years 2003 and 2009, suggests that pupils are simply not engaged.

This is a damaging trend for the UK industry, which has traditionally led the way in computer based innovation. Professor Steve Furber, who chaired the study commented:

“We are now watching the enthusiasm of the next generation waste away through poorly conceived courses and syllabuses. If we cannot address the problem of how to educate our young people in inspirational and appropriate ways, we risk a future workforce that is totally unskilled and unsuited to tomorrow’s job market.”

Will world leaders be left behind?

This decline in interest in the UK and the rest of Europe has come at a pivotal moment, when information and communications technologies should play a critical role in fueling economic recovery and when the struggle to maintain world leading status is reaching a peak. In other parts of the globe, no such waning enthusiasm can be detected. Emerging economies like India have developed a flourishing ICT sector, populated by thousands of the brightest ICT graduates. Their operations are attracting international companies, the majority of which are based overseas in the United States and Europe. Indian IT companies have now become key elements of IT departments in a significant number of the UK’s biggest companies, and major outsourcers include EDS, BT, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and CapGemini.

This increased competition, has focused minds and collective efforts. European players now regard it as imperative to invest in a strategy and e-competencies framework to promote the attractiveness of ICT-related professions. It’s a problem that prompted Bridget Cosgrave, Director-General of DIGITALEUROPE - the voice of Europe’s digital industry in Brussels to comment:

“The burning issue for Europe is to build an adequately e-skilled workforce to drive its economy forward and maintain its leadership position in the 21st Century,” National efforts for a competitive and innovative ICT sector have identified the need for a continued trilateral commitment from government, industry and education.

The University of Wolverhampton is already acting to address this problem. Professor Robert Moreton, Dean of the School of Technology (STech) explains how the School is tackling this issue:

“We’ve recently refocused our undergraduate curriculum to align it to the requirements of the sector. By working with employers, we have been able to identify the skills they value most, and embed them across our degree programmes. We have a responsibility to our graduates and to the sector to ensure that our courses remain attractive, interesting and highly relevant in order to prepare graduates to hit the ground running when they enter the industry.”

Local impact

The West Midlands ICT sector is colonised by specialist SMEs and is home to a number of very large companies. It occupies a key position in the regional economy, contributing 6% to its GDP. Employers in the region are well served by nine universities teaching ICT subjects, and can recruit from the pool of 9,000 ICT graduates/postgraduates they produce every year. Within this highly educated sector, skilled graduates are needed to innovate and grow the industry. Dr Pat Costello is clear that the region needs to maintain higher level skills if it’s not to lose its competitive advantage. “Many of the IT companies I surveyed had developed their business from a single idea for an organisation or specific piece of kit/software. They build a company around that, but when it’s time to diversify, they need help from someone with a greater breadth of knowledge”. Efforts to maximise the retention of graduates are aided by organisations such as Advantage West Midlands and the West Midlands Regional Skills Partnership. Many of the region’s universities offer a comprehensive portfolio of higher level skills services.